MARTINSVILLE, Va. (AP) – The fall visit to Martinsville Speedway is one Jeff Gordon always looks forward to, especially when he’s contending for NASCAR’s big championship.

He’s the dominant NASCAR driver at the .526-mile Martinsville Speedway, with seven career victories and an average finish of third in his last seven visits here. He kept his mastery up Friday, too, qualifying second behind Kurt Busch for the Subway 500.

But while this weekend loomed especially large for the four-time champion a month ago when he was second in points and seemed ready to make a push for his first title since 2001, a string of bad luck and bad runs has taken it all away.

Even Gordon knows he’s likely to fall short of that fifth championship now.

It’s not the 216-point deficit to points leader Jeff Burton that is insurmountable, Gordon said Friday, “it’s that we have nine guys in front of us. To have nine guys in front of you have catastrophes for two weeks in a row, that’s basically unheard of.

“Even if we win every race from here on out, unless some other guys have some major problems, I don’t think we can do it,” Gordon said before Subway 500 qualifying.

Gordon was running fourth last week at Lowe’s Motor Speedway when his engine died with 33 laps to go. He finished 24th and dropped from seventh in the standings to 10th. A broken piston proved his undoing, he said.

In the two previous races, an 11-car accident with 50 laps to go at Talladega relegated him to 36th, and that was after a fuel problem left him 39th at Kansas.

Gordon isn’t the only Hendrick Motorsports driver struggling in the Chase. Jimmie Johnson is in seventh place, 146 points back, and Kyle Busch is ninth, 195 back.

“If you look at Jeff, he breaks an engine last week, freak deal, the rest of us finish and everything is fine,” he said. “Luck just played a part in it this year.”

While insisting he hasn’t completely given up hope, Gordon said it looks like it’s not his year again – his fifth year in a row reaching that conclusion.

The drought has made him recall more fondly each of his series championships.

“Every year that goes by makes me appreciate them even more,” he said. “When we won our third championship, it made me appreciate the first and second one more. When we won the fourth one, it made me appreciate the other three that much more.

“Every year that goes by that you either win one or don’t win one, there’s no doubt you appreciate the things that have happened in this sport – the success that you’ve had, the wrecks that you’ve been through and survived, all those types of things.”

The 35-year-old is in his 14th season as a driver in stock car racing’s premier series and his list of accomplishments rivals that of any of his peers. His next victory will tie him with Dale Earnhardt for sixth on the career list with 76, and while Earnhardt and Richard Petty each won seven titles, Gordon’s have come during the sport’s popularity explosion when sponsors were pouring money in and multicar teams made the competition stiffer.

Gordon won his first championship in 1995, and his fourth in 2001.

“Looking back on those dominant years, those were some awesome times that you can never take away from us, and I don’t know if we can ever duplicate them,” he said.

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